Public Interest Tech: Do Good

Looking for opportunities in Public Interest Technology? The Ethics, Society & Technology Hub offers 9-week summer Tech Ethics & Policy Summer Fellowships and the student-run PIT Lab has weekly meetings and will be offering in-person and virtual interactions with public interest technology companies this winter and externships in the spring. Deadlines to apply for the summer fellowships are Dec 18 and Jan 15.

Prior to her Public Interest Technology Fellowship (now called Tech Ethics & Policy Summer Fellowships), Cecilia Ergueta, a junior majoring in Urban Studies, was pretty cynical about the way that “modern technology disrupts human systems without regard for its effects on communities.” But by working at Fast Forward, a nonprofit technology accelerator, she experienced the potential tech has to produce positive change on a massive scale. During her nine-week internship, she identified 220 innovative tech nonprofits for Fast Forward that focus on scaling for positive impact rather than profit, and realized that “tech needs humanists” to navigate how it “can work for, not against, sustaining urban communities.”

Public Interest Technology (PIT) is a growing field of “technologists trying to be more mindful about their work to make sure their technology is building a better society, especially for communities historically harmed by technological development,” explains Annie Zhu, Stanford PIT Lab’s co-president and Director of Fellowships and Externships. “I think what’s powerful about our student-run lab, and the entire movement, is that it's highly collaborative. It's not just about computer scientists or highly technical people. It also includes individuals who have sociology, psychology, political science backgrounds—everybody has a role in this.”

This past summer, Annie, Cecilia, and seven other Stanford undergraduates, received Stanford’s first Tech Ethics & Policy Summer Fellowships to work in full-time, paid positions with Bay Area public interest technology companies. A collaboration among Stanford’s Ethics, Society & Tech Hub, the Haas Center’s Cardinal Quarter and the student-run PIT Lab, fellows were hired by six different non-profits, startups and accelerators, whose foci included education, health, law and global development — Tech Matters, StreetCode Academy, Formally, California 100/Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Widespread Care and Fast Forward. In addition to gaining hands-on experience at one of these companies, virtual visits to the organizations employing their peers helped students gain an even broader sense of the public interest technology field. “This was the fellowship’s first year, but we will be offering it again next year with an expanded roster of companies,” explained Ashlyn Jaeger, Program Manager for the Ethics, Society, and Technology Hub. 

Unlike Fast Forward, StreetCode Academy is a direct-service nonprofit empowering communities of color, specifically those in East Palo Alto, to be the next generation of technology leaders. Annie Villalta, a sophomore studying Computer Science and minoring in Public Policy, knew she didn’t want to work for a typical Silicon Valley tech company after Stanford, so she appreciated interning with StreetCode and having the opportunity to talk with people in EPA who were leveraging the lessons that can be learned from a tech education as a “stepping stone to a better life.”

Finally, Formally is an example of a small, for-profit start-up. Formally designs accessible, collaborative legal technology for immigrants and asylum seekers and their lawyers, and as a Data Science and Social Systems major, Annie Zhu interned there as a full-stack software engineer. At Formally, she was able to ”expand my technical skill set with hands-on experience — implementing the company’s reset password flow and building the single sign-on process for third-party recommenders — and exercise tremendous agency by leading my own project scoping meetings, incorporating feedback, and providing input during product road mapping meetings.”

If you’re a student who wants to get involved in public interest technology before next summer’s Tech Ethics & Policy Summer Fellowships, PIT Lab may be the place for you. This winter, PIT Lab will be hosting virtual and in-person events with a variety of Bay Area public interest companies and organizations, such as the nonprofit BluebonnetData, which uses data science to help organize grassroots political organizations. By attending the winter events, you can learn about which public interest technology firms you would like to partner with for a quarter-long, hands-on externships in the spring or during next summer's 9-week internship program. 

For more information on Public Interest Technology opportunities on campus, visit our newly created Stanford Public  Interest Technology website.


Donna Hunter is a freelance writer, editor, and tutor living in San Francisco. She has a Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley and was an Advanced Lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric.